You likely haven’t heard of taiga dramas, and even more likely, have never watched one. Let me employ my first contribution as AEQAI’s film critic towards attempting to remedy that, for these classic yearlong Japanese television programs deserve far more attention than they receive in the U.S.
Taiga dramas: a brief introduction
Not to be confused with subarctic forests, taiga translates to “big river” in Japanese, a literary concept derived from the French roman-fleuve or “river-novel,” an extended sequence of novels chronicling a society or era through the lens of a central character or group thereof. NHK, Japan’s national television company has been producing historical taiga dramas annually since 1963. Broadcasting is scarce in the U.S., but English-subtitled DVD collections can generally be purchased online after a complete series has aired.
Each taiga drama consists of about fifty 45-minute suspenseful episodes with high production values and greatly dramatized plots, scripts, and acting. Its lengthy format affords substantial character development across a large cast and allows for the progression of numerous subplots. Though facts are sometimes modified, taiga dramas can entertainingly enhance one’s understanding of Japan’s history and culture. Those unversed must watch carefully as these fast-paced programs are geared towards a Japanese audience already educated about their country’s past. The non-Japanese viewer quickly ascertains basic conventions such as surnames preceding given names. If certain customs seem shocking, one should remember that many European customs of yore would appear just as astounding, particularly to a foreign audience. At the heart of each taiga drama’s epic tale of intertwined relationships and political intrigue are timeless themes transcending characters and location. At worst, these core issues are watered down or presented dogmatically; at best, they are as thought-provoking as any good novel.
Having watched since 1999, I find the finest recent example to be Gunshi Kanbei, the 53rd taiga drama, aired in 2014. This series chronicles the life of Kuroda Kanbei (1546-1604), a daimyo and chief strategist to the powerful general and eventual Imperial Regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Rulers’ chronic misapplication of power is the saga’s through-line. As the narrative unfolds, it details Kanbei’s arduous struggle for survival while interacting with the three primary unifiers of Japan’s embattled Sengoku period (1467-1600): Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Despite his instrumental behind-the-scenes role in helping these top generals unify the country, Kanbei remained in gloomy shadows of their glory, ending up crippled and undervalued.
Throughout the series, several key characters, their arrogance and presumptuousness increasing in commensuration with their status, lose their reason and act relatively stupid at the pinnacle of political success, a phenomenon worsened by listening to unsound advice from ill-intentioned yes-men. Undermined by peers and higher-ups intimidated by his candidness and brilliance, Kanbei’s activities constantly revolve around trying to convince his superiors to listen to reason, or when that isn’t possible, to mitigate dire consequences of their irresponsible actions.
A strikingly ageless storyline
Born in Himeji, Harima, Kanbei is heir to his father, Kuroda Mototaka, lord of Himeji Castle and a key vassal of daimyo Kodera Masamoto. Beginning episodes show Kodera’s territory constantly besieged by Akamatsu, a neighboring clan. As a child, Kanbei is kidnapped by Akamatsu after he inadvertently strays into their territory. As a teenager, he witnesses the immediate aftermath of a brutal raid resulting in the bloody massacre of his childhood friend. These early experiences incite Kanbei’s eventual determination to see an end to the warring era.
A dedicated student of military strategy, Kanbei earns favor with Kodera, becoming his key vassal and Himeji Castle lord at 22 upon his father’s retirement. Meanwhile, Oda Nobunaga, rapidly annexing fiefs, is taking over the country. For the clan’s benefit, Kanbei persuades Kodera to side with Nobunaga and begins working under Hideyoshi, one of Nobunaga’s top generals. However, as Kanbei on Kodera’s behalf assists Hideyoshi in subjugating Harima for Nobunaga, Kodera meddles and vacillates, ultimately betraying Nobunaga and conspiring to have Kanbei assassinated by Araki Murashige, a daimyo revolting against Nobunaga. Instead of killing Kanbei, Murashige imprisons him in a tiny grotto. Not understanding the situation and thinking Kanbei a spy, Nobunaga orders his son beheaded; but Takenaka Hanbei, Hideyoshi’s other strategist, secretly spares him. Finally, after over a year in the cramped dungeon, Kanbei escapes, disfigured and lame in one leg.
Nobunaga’s ruthless acts, such as setting fire to longstanding Buddhist temples, diminish his vassals’ goodwill, ultimately leading his assassination by Akechi Mitsuhide. Immediately afterward, Kanbei masterminds Hideyoshi’s rise to power in a complex sequence of daring strategies beginning with swift punishment of Mitsuhide.
No sooner does Hideyoshi solidify his reign than he descends into despotism. At the fall of his last major foe, the formerly easygoing, charismatic general foreshadows to Kanbei that his craftiness intimidates him. Seemingly devolving into premature senescence as a result of power going to his head, Hideyoshi becomes pathologically obsessed with Nobunaga’s niece, Chacha, who assents to being his concubine after much entreaty. Ishida Mitsunari, a wily, incompetent administrator, becomes his right-hand man, marginalizing Kanbei. Once Hideyoshi is anointed Regent, few dare question his decisions. No one can open his eyes to the folly of his disastrous resolution to take over China by invading Korea.
A poignant sub-plot involving Kanbei’s friend and Hideyoshi’s illustrious tea master, Sen no Rikyu, illustrates how tyranny can wither artistic principles. Hideyoshi, eschewing Rikyu’s wabi-cha ethos of rustic simplicity, prefers to entertain guests in a blazing gold tearoom of ostentatious materialism absurdly at odds with the tea ceremony’s spiritual tenor. Refusing to accept the master’s expertise, over time Hideyoshi takes greater and greater exception to Rikyu’s aesthetic choice of humble bowls and cracked vases, ultimately putting him to death for his outspoken expressions of opinion. Despite admiring his friend’s staunch adherence to principle, Kanbei’s utmost objective is survival.
Kanbei’s Candide-esque tribulations reach their climax when Hideyoshi, beguiled by Mitsunari’s malicious prevarications, sentences him to house arrest and threatens to have him executed. As a gesture of loyalty, Kanbei takes the tonsure and re-names himself Josui, translating to “water,” showing that he will conform to whatever container in which he is placed.
Following Hideyoshi’s death, Kanbei’s headstrong son Nagamasa, having succeeded him as Kuroda lord, eagerly aligns himself with Tokugawa Ieyasu, ignoring Kanbei’s advice to monitor the developing conflict before committing to a side. Unlike his discerning father, the relatively unreflective Nagamasa is more of a status-seeking warrior than a thinker. Still, he becomes one of Ieyasu’s top generals instrumental in winning the Battle of Sekigahara that ends the warring era in 1600 and launches the 268-year Tokugawa shogunate.
Taiga dramas sometimes feel stilted for their historic formality, with plotlines frequently stagnating towards completion. Gunshi Kanbei stands out for its focused narrative and scintillating characters that vivify the play from commencement to conclusion. Chief producer Nakamura Takashi succeeded in his stated ambition of creating a captivating drama by investing each episode, as well as the whole series, with an emotional and adventurous narrative arc. Maekawa Yoichi’s screenplay is exquisitely written and literarily subtitled.
Each taiga drama features a creative title sequence of symbolic surreal scenes loosely alluding to aspects of the tale. This one is particularly dreamlike, with the significance of subjects such as wisterias and water gradually becoming apparent as the program progresses. However, the kitschy digital effects of its final colorized waterfall do leave something to be desired.
Taiga dramas’ long time span means that starring actors must play wide age ranges. The acting in Gunshi Kanbei is extraordinary. Okada Junichi excels as Kanbei: enthusiastic and cheerful early on, he becomes hardened and cynical yet more determined after his crippling imprisonment, and finally exudes buoyancy once again as a self-employed strategist temporarily unleashed on the battlefield. Other memorable performances include Eguchi Yosuke as Nobunaga, whose brash ebullience gives way to brooding devilishness; Nakatani Miki as Teru, Kanbei’s wife; Ibu Masato as Rikyu, viewing his surrounding world as an amusing tragicomedy; Tanihara Shosuke as Kanbei’s calculating mentor Takenaka Hanbei; and Takenaka Naoto as Hideyoshi whose theatrical vulgarity becomes more repugnant as he ages.
The only notable deficiency relates to makeup and hairstyling. Bald caps worn by most actors to approximate samurai coiffures of the day are sorely mismatched in texture and color, with wrinkles and glue lines often visible. Old-age makeup and gray hair are blatantly artificial. And Kanbei’s post-incarceration scar always seems to look different from scene to scene.
In the final episode, Ieyasu rewards Nagamasa with an immense fief for his assistance at Sekigahara, elevating him to a first-rate daimyo more prosperous and powerful than Kanbei had ever been. Ieyasu relishes needling Kanbei that his son has “surpassed” him; but it is implicitly understood that this is only in material terms. The steadfast strategist was never so treacherous as to usurp his leaders’ authority; but neither was he ingratiating enough to allay their fears.
This television drama’s ultimate excellence lies in its implicit criticism of authoritative folly. Gunshi Kanbei‘s warnings of the ill potentials of power, presumption, flattery, and jealousy are as relevant to contemporary America as they were to 16th century Japan. Traditions, appearances, and technologies fluctuate across continents and epochs, but political machinations vary little.
 Names throughout this article are presented in the Japanese custom.
 Alternately presented as Gunshi Kanbe, Gunshi Kanbee, or Strategist Kanbei.